• A dangerous world
    October 12,2013

    Reviews say the movie “Captain Phillips” is a powerful and gripping drama about the real-life hijacking of a large container ship by Somali pirates in 2009.

    That the real-life Captain Phillips is Richard Phillips, of Underhill, a likable man who underwent a horrific experience, gives Vermonters an additional reason to take an interest in the film. That he is played by Tom Hanks, the most likable of movie stars, only burnishes the pedigree of this big-time Hollywood thriller.

    As an action-adventure “Captain Phillips” seems sure to draw viewers. As a study of the phenomenon of piracy and the failed state of Somalia, it may perform a larger service.

    It is a telling reality that the Maersk Alabama, a giant container ship with a crew of 20, was subject to hijacking by a band of young Somalis in small boats. Piracy in the waters near Somalia has been an ongoing problem. Commercial ships and pleasure boats have been targeted, pirates demanding sizable ransoms for the release of people and cargos.

    It is emblematic of our times that even the largest and greatest remain vulnerable to the most impoverished and desperate. It is a relationship that is not likely to change anytime soon. We are bound together on this small planet, and as the wealth of one and the desperation of the other increase, the holdup on the high seas will not be a surprising event.

    Author Robert Kaplan has written numerous books about our changing world, and one of his theses is that the future is likely to be characterized by the dissolving of borders and the rise of amorphous stateless threats occasioned by the continuing pressures of poverty, drought, disease and failed states.

    We are already seeing it happen. Somalia is an example of a failed state spawning chaos in a wider region. The central government has essentially vanished, only recently beating back the threat of the guerrilla group al-Shabab with the help of African Union forces. But al-Shabab reconstituted itself sufficiently in recent weeks to mount the ruthless attack on that upscale mall in Kenya, a neighbor of Somalia’s. There is a large Somali population inside Kenya and a major Somali refugee presence.

    The failure of states across Africa and the Middle East has numerous causes, including drought, repression and ethnic strife. But the nations delineated on our maps do not necessarily describe the shifting realities of peoples scattered across borders, forced to migrate in order to flee poverty or persecution.

    Piracy is only one manifestation of the anarchy caused by the failure of states and the pressures of geography and social upheaval. Extremist political movements are also a seemingly inevitable consequence of social failure. The fiercest revolutions have been the ones that have risen out of the direst social disintegration — as in France, Russia and China.

    The United States has supported the autocratic regimes that we believed would forestall chaos — as in Egypt. As chaos becomes the norm, however, it has become harder to know where to pin our hopes. If revolutions against repressive regimes are hijacked by extremist groups, we face the prospect of revolutions like that in Iran, where America’s puppet, the shah, was ousted by the Islamic revolution, yielding 40 years of hostility. We don’t want to see that sort of revolution in Egypt, Syria or Afghanistan, and yet we know that the days of the old dictators are also numbered.

    Out on the fringes — in the deserts of Mali or the Arabian Sea — desperate militias or bands of pirates do what they believe they must to survive. Tom Hanks survives, of course, and we feel better for it, as we felt when the actual Richard Phillips came home safely to Underhill.

    But we would do well to think about director Paul Greengrass’ previous movie, “United 93.” It was about the Sept. 11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. The lesson that continues to be underscored, in today’s headlines as in today’s movies, is that it is a dangerous world, and it is likely to remain so for some time to come.

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